Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity, and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations. Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.
Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found… guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.
The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — young people aged 18-25 — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.
Why is everyone looking at the same population? And is all this work necessary, or a duplication of effort?
First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys, indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.
They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.
Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.
Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.
“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”
Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”
“Jewish culture is booming,” declares a fall 2005 study on Gen-Y Jewish culture and identity conducted by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. “Rarely have younger American Jews had such a variety of opportunities to explore and express their Jewish identities outside the traditional venues of synagogues and JCCs.”
The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that what the new studies reveal about the Jewish community is interesting.
While Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more,” he says. That’s “a measure of how much we’ve learned.”
Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” says Sarna, a member of JTA’s board of directors.
But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?
Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the particular needs of the sponsoring organization.
For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.
The statistic in question “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in, what’s relevant to them, to inform ourselves and determine how we can address their needs in a more effective way.”
Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”
One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“Tzedek will be a major emphasis” of Hillel programming in the future, Sandler says.
That fact that these studies are coming up with similar results may mean that researchers are on the right track, Sandler adds.
Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.
She says the Avi Chai Foundation, which funded her study, “wondered what’s going on at college beyond birthright,” a program that sends college-aged Jews on free Israel trips. “What else could be done? What kinds of interventions could make a difference?”
Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews, and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.
She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.
In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.
Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.
“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.